It takes time to build a theatre company, and not just in a logistical sense; you also have to find your voice and working method. So it should not be taken as anything but a good sign of continued dedication that Pallas Theatre Collective is re-imagining themselves three years after making their debut.
“All of us at Pallas really feel like this season, our fourth season, is our coming out season,” says Ty Hallmark, the artistic director. “We have three full productions. We have a space, at Anacostia Arts Center. We definitely feel like this is like our official first season.”
The first of those four productions will be the British Restoration comedy She Stoops to Conquer, repurposed to take place in Washington, D.C. during Andrew Jackson’s presidency. This summer, the company will perform a new chamber musical, The Yellow Wallpaper. It will be followed by a musical adaptation of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. The final show will be The Taming of the Shrew transported to the Louisiana bayou in the early 20th century, to be directed by Hallmark herself.
She Stoops to Conquer fits in as the first show in this season full of American reinventions. It will coincide, not insignificantly, with the company’s ‘1st Annual Spring Gala & Silent Auction.’ The Gala replaces what would have been the Saturday evening performance of the play, this weekend on May 17th, and Hallmark notes that about two dozen $25 tickets are left – which must be purchased in advance. Four selections from musicals the company is directing will be featured in addition to the auction and a raffle.
Overlapping seems to be a major theme with Pallas, not just in its dense schedule but also in roles within the company. She Stoops to Conquer was selected by two members of the ensemble of artists, as Pallas designs their seasons collectively. Chelsea Mayo and Laura Rocklyn put forth the play, written in the 1770s by Oliver Goldsmith, and got it selected for the season.
The two each have parts in the play and, in addition to those roles and their regular duties as members of the collective, are also working as designers (Rocklyn handling costumes, and Mayo props) – a heavily-involved arrangement that Hallmark expects to be common, given that they look for “artists who invest” deeply when choosing new team members.
That said, the selection of the play, and the setting of it in Washington, DC during the Jacksonian era, was not an idle choice.
“In Washington, the play was produced almost every year throughout the 1810s and 1820s,” says AnnMarie T. Saunders, the play’s director and a theatre scholar. “What made this play so resonant with capital audiences? What could Washington of today learn from Washington of yesteryear?”
The play has not been performed often in recent times, by contrast – nor has Restoration comedy in general, that genre of sexual hijinks and cheerful social satire, except for an occasional production at larger institutions like Shakespeare Theatre Company. Hallmark finds this “surprising, because it’s really fun to do as an actor. And it’s also really accessible for audiences too – it’s a bunch of really fun shenanigans.”
“We often think Washington is crazy now – this is nothing new,” says Saunders. “This town has been a pile of contradictions since it became the capital in 1800. …Today’s Red State/Blue State gridlock looks like childish bickering when compared to the election of 1828, which hurled personal attacks so vicious – ‘murder’, ‘adulterer’, even ‘pimp’ among the insults – that Andrew Jackson’s wife died because of it (at least that’s what he believed).”
“Sometimes a little perspective is good for us,” she continues. “And laughter is always good for the soul.”
The change of setting has proved to be quite natural.
“I know [Mayo has] been shopping for… red, white and blue bunting, Americana props,” says Hallmark with a smile.
“It translates really well,” says Saunders. “We changed a few of the specific place references from British locations to American, and made ‘Sir’ Charles into a General. Which is exactly what the 19th Century theatre troupes would have done – they were always adjusting the texts to suit the audience, to incorporate local jokes or local references.”
Despite the removal in time, Hallmark is optimistic about how modern and specifically local audiences will take to the play.
“We did have a really good response,” she says, about their postering campaign, advertising for the show in the neighborhood around their performance venue, the Anacostia Arts Center. “The team that went to Anacostia had a very welcome, positive response that there’s a performing arts group that’s there, that’s in residence.”
“One of my goals,” she continues, “is to meet with community leaders and to learn the stories that they want told, and to try and work that into our season. That’s very important to me.”
Changing chairs at Pallas
Hallmark’s position as Artistic Director is a recent change, and one of the major elements of the company’s new direction. (She was previously Casting and Collective Manager.) Founder and original Artistic Director Dr. Tracey Chessum is stepping back into the role of Managing Artistic Director.
Hallmark, a self-described “theatre lifer” and Louisiana native who made her way to DC about a decade ago by way of Tennessee, Florida and Massachusetts, is delighted to be at the helm.
“It’s a natural fit,” she says. “I do feel the weight of it more so than any artistic endeavor I’ve ever done but I’m also confident in my ability to handle it. It came around at the right time in my life. I was not ready for this even just a couple years ago.”
She attributes her confidence in part to the support of the Pallas Collective and their board of directors, “a loyal bunch of collaborators who believe as strongly in the mission” as she does. As well, she credits previous mentors, such as Ian Gallanar and Lesley Malin of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. Hallmark brings with her a vision for a highly engaged and open arts organization.
“We want to be an accessible theatre company. I don’t want it to be oh the actors are hiding behind the curtain and there’s this big wall,” she says. “I want [a visit to one of Pallas’ shows] to be the beginning of a conversation: what is important to your life and your community, and what can we do to serve you.”
She would like, in particular, for her audience to let her know what kind of work they’d like to see Pallas produce.
“Say, ‘Hey, think about doing this,’ and we’ll think about doing it. …I’m very accessible, and [you] can email me, [and] talk to me at intermission or after the show.”
Another major change in the company’s direction is to their mission statement, which was revised at a recent board meeting, according to Hallmark. She describes the process the company went through like this:
“You have this forest, and you’ve gone in and specifically identified your trees, but you can’t see the whole forest… So we needed to step out from it a little bit.”
Closes June 1, 2014
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The new mission statement that resulted focuses on two points: “(1) to foster the continuation of the American musical theatre legacy, and (2) to assist in the growth of theatre artists as they share their own American stories.” Hallmark describes the re-envisioned company as having an “Americanist” perspective, as well as being particularly interested in fostering younger and newer theatre artists. The focus on development of new musicals remains constant from the company’s founding.
For Hallmark herself, the season of new directions will build to the show she is herself directing, The Taming of the Shrew.
“I’ve set it in a bayou in Louisiana in 1910, because I think that opens it up to actors of diverse backgrounds playing these roles. …A diverse cast of actors from all backgrounds and walks of life – it’s their stories that I am most passionate about telling, and that is the direction I want to move Pallas as we enter our 5th and 6th seasons.”